The Fourth: A secular Shavuot?
In mid-spring, usually some time in May, we Jews celebrate the mystical marriage of God and Israel at Shavuot, as concretized by the tablets of the Law that Moshe carried down from Sinai. Of course, we’re Jews! We eat! We celebrate with food, huge lashings of dairy, rich creams and extravagant displays of cheeses and cakes, and the heavenly cheesecake that is the fruit of their union. We celebrate with the soft white foods of springtime. We stay up all night to study, which is a traditional Jewish form of revelry.
In early summer, we Americans celebrate the signing of the Declaration of Independence, the document over which Jefferson, Adams, and the other founding fathers agonized as they gave birth to this new nation. Of course, we’re Americans! We eat! We celebrate with food, barbecues, hot dogs, and hamburgers. We stay up well into the night to watch the fireworks bursting in air, making the dark sky bloom and blossom and explode with color.
On Shavuot we celebrate the giving of the Torah, which is based in the covenant, the b’rit, that Abraham made with God.
On the Fourth of July we celebrate the signing of the Declaration, which led to the Constitution, the extraordinary document that safeguards our civil rights.
We know that the Puritans who first settled this country, close readers of what they called the Old Testament, saw the parallels between themselves and the children of Israel. They called their new dream world the New Jerusalem. Jews echoed the compliment. The United States in Hebrew is Artzot Ha-b’rit. This is not a direct translation; literally, it means the Lands of the Covenant. And what is the covenant? “Early American maskilim used the Hebrew word ‘b’rit’ as a metaphor for the U.S. Constitution,” said Dr. Gary Zola, who teaches at HUC-JIR in Cincinnati and heads the American Jewish Archives. It is a lovely response to the Puritans.
My husband and I spent a recent Fourth of July weekend at this country’s Mount Sinai — Philadelphia. We went to the Museum of the Constitution, an amazing place that helps us understand that history once was the living present. Near the museum’s exit, visitors walk through a room peopled with lifesized statues of the Declaration’s signers. Some of those men were looming giants, but most of them were about my size, and I am very short. Somehow, looking at these lifelike bronzes, with their silly little ponytails and their unkempt unbuttoned waistcoasts, seeing how small they were, knowing how world-changing their actions were, it was easier to understand and therefore be awed by their courage. They were real men risking their real necks, and look at what they did.
When the Constitution was adopted, Benjamin Rush, one of those signatories, wrote a letter describing a parade celebrating that feat in Philadelphia: “Pains were taken to connect ministers of the most dissimilar religious principles together….The Rabbi of the Jews locked in the arms of two ministers of the gospel, was a most delightful sight. There could not have been a more happy emblem contrived, of that section of the new constitution, which opens all its powers and offices alike, not only to every sect of Christians, but to worthy men of every religion.”
We spent another recent July Fourth watching fireworks over the Hudson. We walked over to Riverside Park and followed the crowd down past the lush gardens to the edge of the river. The park abruptly changes at its westernmost edge as it moves south; the greenery gives way to the river’s blue and silver and gray. Boats bob on the water; on the Fourth, there were so many of them that it looked distinctly rush-hour-like. The asphalt below your feet morphs into wooden planks, and you can smell a bit of the estuary salt.
And the people! There were so very many people. All ages, all sizes, all stages of life; babies swaddled in Snugglis, little kids dragging toys, teenagers pretending not to be with their parents, young couples unable to keep their hands off each other, young parents, old parents, older people, very old people. A huge babble of languages; lots of Hebrew kept bubbling up, amid the Spanish and Portuguese and French and Russian, the languages I could tentatively identity even if I can’t understand them. And then all the huge range of other tongues, some Slavic, some Asian, some unidentifiably exotic. There were all sorts of people — Jews and Christians and Muslims and Sikhs and Hindus and Buddhists; descendants of Europeans, Africans, and Asians, all together, all by choice, all to celebrate the Fourth and the freedom it gives us. We all funneled south on the walkway. That year, the fireworks were to be set off over the Hudson, somewhere in the mid-50s. We walked further and further south, until eventually we had to stop; it was hard to tell where we were but it seemed as if it was about 72nd street.
It was tremendously crowded, but no one pushed and no one complained. It was beautiful there, and the mood was buoyant. We all were there by choice; it was entirely free; we all felt lucky to be able to be there. We stood and waited as the sun set, first gilding the river and then setting it on fire. And then came the next fire, the amazing glittering sparkling shining bursting noisy waterfall of fireworks. We all stood with our heads back and our mouths open. It lasted half an hour; when it was over we all walked back as we had come in, together. No one pushed, no one complained, almost no one talked. We were all together.
It was a glorious Fourth.
More on: Go fourth!
Jonathan Sarna talks about American Jews, then and now
It was the dawning of a messianic era.
So it seemed to the earliest Jews to establish synagogues in the new settlements of North America. That’s according to Jonathan Sarna, professor of American Jewish history at Brandeis University, author of the award-winning American Judaism: A History, and chief historian of the new National Museum of American Jewish History in Philadelphia.
“It’s not an accident that all the synagogue names are messianic terms,” he said, pointing to Shearith Israel — founded 1655 in New York, and literally meaning the remnant of Israel; Jeshuat Israel — founded in 1658 in Newport, Rhode Island, meaning the salvation of Israel (later renamed the Touro Synagogue); and Mikveh Israel, meaning the hope of Israel, the name of synagogues founded in the 18th century in Savannah, Georgia, and Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
While many people will celebrate the Fourth of July with fireworks and barbecues, many of the Jewish summer camps where area families send their children are looking for more creative, and Jewish, ways to mark the day.
At Camp Ramah in the Berkshires, housed in Wingdale, N.Y., “One of our traditions is to have a camp-wide live concert,” its associate director, Rabbi Amy Roth, said.
This year, Ramah-Berkshires, affiliated with the Conservative movement, is the summer home for about 570 youngsters.
On July 4th, Ramah will welcome back the Brian Gelfand Group, Roth said. She pointed out that the band blends modern musical styles with traditional Jewish themes, frequently concentrating on the relationships between the communal and the traditional — issues that often surface in American Jewish life.